Honoring the Legacy of Cesar Chavez and Farmworker Struggles?
For years there has been a growing concern expressed by writers, activists, historians and organizers who have objected to the sanitizing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., especially during the national MLK holiday. Well, same thing is happening to the legacy of farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez.
Yesterday, in Grand Rapids, was the annual Cesar Chavez march, where very little of what took place seemed to honor the legacy of the work of Cesar Chavez and the struggle of farmworkers.
There was nothing said before the march took place that gave attention to farmworkers. In fact, there was no evidence of farmworker presence and no farmworker was asked to speak before the march. In fact, the only people who spoke before the march, was the chair of the Committee to Honor Cesar Chavez, the current Mayor of Grand Rapids (Rosalynn Bliss) and the former Mayor of Grand Rapids (George Heartwell).
The march was led by an escort of GRPD vehicles, followed by roughly 25-30 JRROTC students marching in military formation. This was followed by a banner that was held by local “Leaders” and then students and other community members followed.
First, it seemed strange to have so much of a hyper-military presence with JrROTC students and GRPD officers on foot and in cars. Chavez was pretty militant about his commitment to non-violence, so their presence seemed rather contradictory. In fact, one of the “leaders” who was invited to hold the main banner near the front was the Grand Rapids Police Chief.
More importantly, having police presence sends a strong message to people who are undocumented and live in the Grandville Ave area. The ongoing deportations and raids conducted by ICE and other law enforcement officials is a reality that those who are undocumented must face on a daily basis. Having law enforcement officials present at such an event only discourages farmworkers and undocumented migrants from participating, even though they are the ones who have most in common with the legacy of Chavez and and current farmworker struggles.
Second, the “leaders” holding the banner were mostly made up of politicians and professionals. Now maybe some of these people have direct connection to the farmworker community, but it seems likely that most are not practicing or promoting the work that Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) engaged. How many of these “leaders” are involved in or in solidarity with labor organizing efforts by farmworkers today and how many of them support or participate in the kinds of direct action campaigns (strikes, boycotts, etc) that are the bread and butter of UFW campaigns?
Lastly, members of the group Foco Rojo were present and passed out flyer in English and in Spanish that asked many of these same questions. Here is the English text of the flyer they handed out:
WE DEMAND JUSTICE FOR MIGRANT WORKERS NOW!
Today we honor the memory and legacy of Cesar Chavez. We honor him by marching and we honor him by fighting for justice today.
Migrant workers are some of the most exploited workers in our community. They work long hours, in difficult working conditions and make very little money. In fact, migrant workers are one of the few jobs where minimum wage laws do not apply.
In 2010, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission published a report, based on testimony from farm workers, that concluded the living and working conditions for farm workers today is as bad, if not worse, than it was 50 years ago.
Migrant farm workers continue to live in poverty and many of them live in fear of harassment and deportation, since many of these workers are undocumented.
To honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez, which is to honor the lives of migrant farm workers, we ask, why are there no campaigns to organize migrant farm workers in West Michigan? We cannot truly honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez by holding symbolic marches while migrant farm workers and their families struggle to survive.
Migrant farm workers are organizing themselves all across the country through organizations such as the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. However, no such efforts to organize migrant farm workers is currently taking place in West Michigan, in spite of the fact that this area has one of the highest concentration of migrant farm workers in the country.
Honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez should not be a day to make us feel good about ourselves, it should be a day where we commit ourselves to standing in solidarity with migrant farm workers. It should be a day where we hear the voices of migrant farm workers, not from politicians and other so-called leaders.
The United Farm Workers movement that Cesar Chavez was part of, was a movement that was committed to union solidarity, to the use of tactics like boycotts, strikes and other forms of direct action to force agribusiness to respect the dignity of migrant farm workers. This is the kind of movement we need today.